Khat in the Horn of Africa: A Scourge or Blessing?

Addis Ababa – Throughout a Sunday afternoon in the Ethiopian capital, Yemeni émigré men in their fifties and sixties arrive at a traditional Yemeni-styled mafraj room clutching bundles of green, leafy stalks: khat.

As the hours pass they animatedly discuss economics, politics, history, life and more while chewing the leaves. The gathering is a picture of civility. But in many countries khat has a bad reputation, with it either being banned or prompting calls for it to be banned.

Understanding khat—or as it is also known and spelt: jima, mira, qat, chat, cat; and whose leaves when chewed act as a psychotropic stimulant with what some would call amphetamine effects—is far from straightforward.

This innocuous-looking plant has experts variously claiming it is as mild as tea or as addictive as cocaine. Hence a few years ago khat’s international reputation presented a particularly conflicting picture: it was legal in Britain, banned in the US, celebrated in Yemen and vilified in Saudi Arabia.

In the Horn of Africa, khat is an institution, wielding enormous economic impact, as well as playing a major social and cultural role in societies. In the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa, you won’t find much khat-related dissent.

“It brings people together, it facilitates discussion of issues and exchanging information,” says local journalist Abdul, the corners of his mouth speckled with green mush. “In the West it’s often difficult for people to interact, but here they learn about their neighbours and what problems they have.”

It’s estimated 90 percent of Somaliland’s adult male population—and about 20 percent of women—chew khat for mirqaan, the Somali word for the buzz it can give.

Nowadays khat is so enmeshed with Somaliland culture and daily life it’s an important tax earner for Somaliland’s government. In 2014, khat sales generated 20 percent of the government’s 152-million-dollar budget, according to the Somaliland Ministry of Finance.

Khat is also the No. 1 employer in Hargeisa, the Somaliland capital, generating between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs, thereby offering much-needed respite to the country’s chronic unemployment problem that see 75 percent of its youth workforce jobless.

Meanwhile, for Ethiopia, khat is a major earner: Somaliland spends about 524 million dollars a year—about 30 percent of gross domestic product—on Ethiopian khat (many suspect the true figure to be much higher).

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By James Jeffrey

Picture credit: Zacharias Abubeker/Getty Images